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State Of The Arts: How Miami's Community Is Coming Of Age

Claudia H. Munoz

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series on the Arts Season in South Florida that begins in late September and October and runs through the spring. The series will highlight some of the various venues and must-see events and attractions this year. This post is an overview of where the Miami arts scene has been and where it is going. 

As the hegemony of tropical heat subsides ever so slightly in South Florida, all sectors of life start to energize: tourists spill in, business picks up, culture blooms. But in some ways, it’s not just another cycle of the season blowing through.

Though much remains the same, 2013 is a watershed for the local arts community.

It peaks in the fall and winter, yet the calendar of events, programming and production has grown into a year-round sweep. Since Art Basel arrived in 2002, Miami’s culture industries have grown in both number and scale – everything from the visual arts and music to literary activity.

And this growth doesn’t only affect the arts. These industries have brought international attention and property development that’s changed and changing many neighborhoods. The most potent example is Wynwood, which has swelled with more galleries and independent businesses, its monthly Art Walk becoming a heavily trafficked event.

The Downtown Development Authority has invigorated parts of sleepy Downtown Miami with funding for new spaces and projects, and the new Pérez Art Museum Miami will open in December, in tandem with Art Basel.

Credit Miami Herald
Art Basel at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Art Basel, the international art fair held every June in Basel, Switzerland and in Miami every December, has typically garnered the most attention. This year it will host 258 galleries, including just two Miami-based spaces (Frederic Snitzer and Spinello Gallery). Yet with every year, there are more and more satellite fairs and unofficial events that take place, everything from VIP affairs to gritty house shows.

There’s no doubt that Art Basel and the 50,000 collectors and visitors that come for it have improved Miami’s cultural offerings that benefit certain local industries. Hotels, restaurants, retail outlets, taxi and car services reap major rewards. Also, local artists, gallerists, and enthusiasts get to engage with a national and global slew of trendy and historically notable works.

This, combined with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has led to the sustenance of a number of programs: from the O, Miami poetry festival and other events by the University of Wynwood, to a growing number of print publications such as The Miami Rail. Some independent spaces for the arts have been maintained too, with new ones starting to form.

Credit Zack Balber / Ginger Photography
The exhibition and project space for Locust Projects in Miami's Design District.

There’s Locust Projects – a not for profit exhibition space opened in 1998 – that hosts exhibitions and a series of public lectures by out-of-town and local artists and thinkers, and their upcoming Smash-and-Grab fundraiser is a must for local collectors. Cannonball, formerly known as Legal Art, has grown its residency program for artists both homegrown and visiting.

Credit myartguide.com
The Cannonball building in Downtown Miami.

Speaking about the benefits of Art Basel’s arrival, Chana Budgazad Sheldon, executive director of Locust Projects since 2009, says, “One of the great things that Art Basel has done is that it created an awareness in the community about the arts.” She says the fair as helped “a whole new generation of artist-run spaces” crop up, and that Miami has set itself apart from other major cities by virtue of being relatively young, without much infrastructure for the arts.

The result is strong do-it-yourself ethic, helped in part by the availability of space here, unlike say, a New York or Los Angeles. The trend of artists leaving for other metros is also swinging, with more creative types staying here instead of moving for their careers.

However, local energy and engagement did not suddenly appear with Art Basel. Small, underground arts communities have existed here, even though long-term cohesion was always hard to come by (some argue that it still is). A stark example is South Beach, which was an enclave for a small group of misanthropic artists and musicians, many of whom were eventually forced out by high rents.

"When art becomes purely about a career and making money, then artists start to make what sells, producing for collectors and thus stopping the process of experimentation in order to fabricate these things."

This do-it-yourself spirit still lives, even with the shadow of the fair looming over. “The artists here have such an energy and passion for making things work, and they’re getting together in collaborative ways and trying out new things,” Sheldon says.

There are also points of criticism regarding the explosive growth that’s occurred. Besides the common complaints of the dizzying amount of people and things to see, discussion has been generated about what it means to think and work locally, the importance of the pre-fair cultural heritage of South Florida, and the role of the artist and why we even need or want art in the first place.

With the arrival of what is probably the most lauded art fair in the world, there is a paradox: while it’s helped local art and industries, there’s a sense that the fair is exclusive in that it caters to wealthy collectors rather than focusing more on local growth and perspectives.

“In many ways, art is becoming focused on production, instead of on making art,” says Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, one of the founders of Dimensions Variable, an artist-run exhibition space. “When art becomes purely about a career and making money, then artists start to make what sells, producing for collectors and thus stopping the process of experimentation in order to fabricate these things.”

Credit Dimensions Variable
The Dimensions Variable building in Downtown Miami.

Rodriguez emphasizes that Art Basel is not to blame for this. The vibrancy of an arts community comes from the networked relationships amongst artists, gallerists, collectors, the public and developers – a relationship that the fair has helped to grease tremendously.

Rather, it’s the local community and the directions that it consciously decides to head in. “It’s about creating and cultivating a structure that makes it okay for artists to experiment,” Rodriguez says, something that Dimensions Variable, Locust Projects, and other spaces have done, aided by the boon of Art Basel and the wider support for the arts that’s grown alongside it. 

There are also the individuals that make up the community.

Nicolas Lobo, an artist born in Los Angeles and raised in Miami, who’s carved a career here, says that Art Basel itself is not a negative thing. Rather, “If Miami defines itself by Art Basel, then we are lost. Anything negative about it is based on how we behave the rest of the year.”

This points to something about art that is bigger and more profound. As Rodriguez puts it, the significance of art is in “the presentation of new ideas, and then the discussion of those new ideas. Art is about moving society forward and creating change.”

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